How did Arkansas go from being a one-party Democratic state to being a Republican one, and how did it seem to happen so suddenly?
By STEVE BRAWNER
That’s the question John C. Davis seeks to answer in his upcoming book, “From Blue to Red: The Rise of the GOP in Arkansas,” that is being published by The University of Arkansas Press and will be available in February. Davis teaches political science at the University of Arkansas and directs the David and Barbara Pryor Center for Arkansas Oral History.
Democrats dominated Arkansas politics for 140 years after the Civil War, but power quickly shifted to Republicans starting in 2010. Now Republicans occupy all congressional offices, all statewide positions, and 111 of the 135 state legislative seats.
Davis told me his book traces the development of the modern Republican Party through three phases. One begins in 1966 with the elections of Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller, the state’s first Republican governor since the Civil War Reconstruction era, and John Paul Hammerschmidt to the 3rd District congressional seat in Northwest Arkansas.
That era lasted until about 1992. For the next 18 years, Republicans began making headway. Events – some of them “rather coincidental or even accidental,” he said – helped the GOP gain strength. When then-Gov. Bill Clinton was elected president, he took a lot of talent with him to Washington. Then-Lt. Gov. Jim Guy Tucker became governor, which opened up the lieutenant governor’s office, to which Republican Mike Huckabee was elected in a special election in 1993. When Tucker resigned, Huckabee became governor for more than 10 years.
“And then you have people like Asa Hutchinson, who I argue in the book is really the one constant in the GOP over these three generations,” Davis said.
Among Hutchinson’s accomplishments was a lawsuit he led as party chair that led to state-funded ballot precinct boxes. As a result, there were as many places to vote in the Republican primary as in the Democratic one.
Over generations, a growing number of Arkansas voters favored Republican presidential nominees, but Democrats continued winning down the ballot even as other Southern states shifted allegiances. That was partly because Clinton, David Pryor and Dale Bumpers masterfully presented themselves and their party as Arkansas Democrats, not national ones.
But that started changing over time, too. During the 1990s and early 2000s, Republicans would win occasional races like Jay Dickey’s win in the 1992 4th District congressional race. The party expanded its recruiting and fundraising efforts. Meanwhile, politics became more nationalized. Clinton, Pryor and Bumpers left the scene, and the Democrats who remained could not separate themselves from the party’s culturally liberal brand.
Then came President Barack Obama’s election in 2008, which led to the third phase described by Davis. Starting in 2010, Republicans started beating most Democrats not named Mike Beebe.
Clearly, Obama’s election was the catalyst. Davis said he didn’t relate to many Arkansas voters. Race was one factor, but Davis doesn’t know how much, and he said he deals carefully with that subject in the book. Obama also was Ivy League-educated and urban, and he arrived when Democrats had stopped trying to appeal to rural, Southern states. His signature policy, Obamacare, was unpopular here, but on the other hand, the state has largely embraced it with its Medicaid expansion program.
At any rate, Republicans have continued expanding their majority post-Obama. Today, the party seems likely to dominate Arkansas politics for a while. In this nationalized political environment, Republicans are largely unified on what it means to be conservative. Meanwhile, Democrats struggle here.
In these divided political times, Arkansas would have gone from blue to red regardless. Davis argues that Republicans’ party-building exercises that began decades ago allowed them to capitalize on their momentum.
And the future? Facing limited Democratic opposition, Republicans now have some intra-party conflict, just like Democrats did when they were in charge. Republicans conceivably could commit some unforced errors like Democrats did, but it’s a different political age. Arkansas doesn’t have large metro areas like Atlanta, which by itself makes Georgia a purple state, or Austin, Texas. It could be a while before Democrats are competitive again. One place to watch is Northwest Arkansas. As it grows and becomes more diverse, Democrats could be more competitive there. Interestingly, that’s where Republicans first became competitive many years ago.
We’ll see. Arkansas could eventually go from red to blue or purple or maybe some other color. Things do change in politics – suddenly, yes, but also over time.
Steve Brawner is a syndicated columnist published in 13 outlets in Arkansas. Email him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.